The return of the Austrian Grand Prix to Formula 1 calendar was eagerly awaited by fans and drivers alike, due to its classic layout and good memories from races past. Excitement was bound to be on the cards, but hardly anyone expected the emergence of a potential black horse that almost threw the leading Silver Arrow squad off the podium throne – not least the team in question themselves.
Following the success story which was Canada, Red Bull were expected to impress on the circuit that carried their name after the makeover funded by the team’s owner, and arguably the richest man in Austria, Dietrich Mateschitz. But these expectations could hardly be any more distant from the facts, as only one of the four Red Bull-sponsored cars crossed the finish line, and only just managing to collect a couple of points for that feat.
Daniel Ricciardo had to accept a 21-point deficit on his previous race result, swapping the top podium spot in Canada for 8. place finish in Austria – a further compromise considering his 5. place qualifying. In fact, it was the Saturday session that made it clear the team in the spotlight would not have an easy task ahead of them to please the sponsors, as Sebastian Vettel’s poor performance demoted him to a shocking 13. starting place on the grid. On Sunday it just went from bad to worse as after an impressive charge to the front on the first lap, the German’s car slowed down nearly to a halt due to a clutch/power issue. Hopeless, Vettel sought some direction from his engineer over the team radio; but when he was told to switch the engine off, suddenly the car’s computer came back to life and the standing champion was off, racing once more.
The futile chase after the pack did not last long, however; a contact with Esteban Gutierrez’s Sauber on lap 30 forced him to do another unscheduled pitstop to change a damaged front wing. Few laps later the team decided to call it a day.
Vettel’s retirement was sandwiched between both cars of his sister team, Toro Rosso, completing the lonely trio of DNFs (did not finish) that afternoon. Danill Kvyat, who impressed with career-best 7. place qualifying, ended up limping into an escape road on lap 24, after reporting breaking issues, caused by suspected suspension failure. His team-mate lasted longer, but eventually was brought into the garage on lap 61, also with a break problem.
Red Bull’s demise after a short jump back to its winning ways was not as surprising, however, as the sudden emergence of Williams onto the scene. The team had looked promising since the start of the season, but only in Austria did it show the claw by snatching the top two qualifying spots – its first front row lockout in 13 years.
Felipe Massa took the pole, making it his first since the Brazilian GP 2008. Unfortunately for him, unlike in Sao Paolo that year, he did not manage to turn the starting position into a win, as the team eventually gave into the sheer superiority of Mercedes, who got their mojo back – but not without hiccups.
Lewis Hamilton was the more troubled of the two Silver Arrows’ drivers, facing the prospect of fighting his team-mate in third while starting from 9. following a tough Saturday qualifying. But that knowledge only fuelled the Brit’s determination as he whizzed past the competition on the first few corners to place himself fourth at the end of lap one. From then until the first set of pitstops around lap 12 the action focused on the four front-runners: Massa and team-mate Valtteri Bottas in the lead, followed by two Mercedes, racing as much the Williams as each other.
As it happened in previous races this season, different intra-team strategies could have been deciding in handing the laurels to one driver and not the other in Austria. Nico Rosberg went for his first tyre change before Hamilton made the dip; but the German benefitted from a 0.9sec quicker service, which reassured his position behind the Martini colours. Next to pit was Massa – but it might have been a bit too late for the Williams’ super soft rubber as despite coming out in between the two Mercedes, the Brazilian was quickly overtaken by Hamilton who continued his charge for in pursuit of victory.
Then it was Valtteri’s turn as the then race leader made his way into the pits… to receive his tyre change in somewhat record-breaking 2.1sec! This gave him great advantage not only over his team-mate but also Hamilton, as it was the Finn’s turn to split the two Silver Arrows – and stay there for quite some time.
Following Rosberg they eventually overtook Sergio Perez, who was enjoying the leader’s cap on his then 27-lap stint until there was hardly any rubber left on the tyres for him to keep the position. One lap later Hamilton also made the pass, leaving Massa on the wrong side of the limping Force India, which robbed the Brazilian of good momentum in his own pursuit of podium. And if that (plus the bad memories of Canada two weeks earlier) weren’t enough reason for frustration, Massa was blocked by Perez again before the Mexican’s second pitstop on lap 54 – from where the Brazilian had to defend from his former team-mate Alonso.
Eventually, the pole sitter finished the race just outside the podium, with the Spaniard coming a close 5., followed by Perez. The Mexican deserved a lot of credit that afternoon, having progressed steadily by overtaking in beautiful style from 15., where he was demoted by a five-place grid penalty for the Canadian incident. Together with his team-mate Nico Hulkenberg’s 9. place finish, Force India collected enough points to keep themselves ahead of Williams in the constructors championship – even if just by mere two points.
Because, even though the Grove outfit did not scoop the elusive win, Valtteri Bottas’ third place finish was the best result anyone could hope for when faced with nearly problem-free Mercedes. Radio messages from both Silver Arrows’ drivers suggested concerns over their breaking system, but there was no repeat of Canada and the team claimed its sixth 1-2 finish this season. Hamilton did not manage to spark an extra boost of energy from his car in the final laps and so the win this time went to Rosberg – but out of the three top finishers only Bottas seemed genuinely (albeit quietly) pleased with his podium spot.
And no wonder; as the circus moves to another classic circuit for the British Grand Prix, the question “Who will win?” becomes “Which Mercedes driver will it be this time?” – and the paddock knows it. So while Williams celebrate loudly their best-of-the-rest result, quietly they and others will hope for a deja-vu of Canada and Mercedes’ IT issues.